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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Simone de Beauvoir, la promesse faite aux femmes

by Lucien Degoy

Simone de Beauvoir, Her Promise to Women

Translated Thursday 17 January 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The writer and philosopher, who died on April 14th 1986, would have been a hundred on January 9th. The theme of feminism and women’s liberation structures all of her literary and philosophical works. Historian Sylvie Chaperon is the author of " Les Années Beauvoir, 1945-1970 " (The Beauvoir Years), a major study of the philosopher’s position in relation to the ideas of her time, which sheds new light on the issue of the promised revolution in relations between men and women.

HUMA: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s private relationship and the historiography of their respective love affairs and eventful sex lives still excite the passionate interest of commentators and journalists. How important are they to historians?

SYLVIE CHAPERON: Beauvoir’s private life does indeed invite that kind of passionate interest and most of the studies devoted to her person are in fact biographies that focus on the sentimental dimension. The successive publications of her Lettres à Sartre (Gallimard, 1990), of her diary, of her love correspondence with Algren and Bost are the main sources for that kind of work (1). Historians will take a critical approach to these commentaries if they simply consist of psychological analyses or moral judgements. But it is quite legitimate to use the rich store of sources that Beauvoir left to enrich the history of private or sexual life. All that is required is to contextualize these events. Like many non-conformist intellectuals or artists of their time, Beauvoir and Sartre tried to re-invent the couple, love, and sexuality by steering clear of the family, of matrimony, and stereotyped roles. Their individual attempts announce the “sexual revolution” of the 1970s, which was a collective movement and involved communities.

HUMA: In her very first books Beauvoir already claimed for women an identical situation to that of men, notably in her relation to Sartre. Yet she did not declare herself a feminist until fairly late in her life. In a way, she became one, as was also the case for others. What would you say were the most important stages in that transformation?

SYLVIE CHAPERON: Until the 1970s she kept away from feminist groups, even though she wrote prefaces to support the campaign of la Maternité heureuse (Happy Motherhood) - which was to become le Planning familial (Family Planning). Yet she said she was a feminist. As early as November 1949, a short time after the publication of The Second Sex, she spoke about suffragists to Claudine Chonezon on a radio channel in the following terms: “But they certainly were feminists and they were right in this, and I myself am definitely a feminist.” In 1965 she said to Francis Jeanson: “I am basically a feminist.” She contributed a lot to re-defining feminism in the second half of the 20th century, by turning private issues into political issues and by demanding not just formal equality for women but the freedom to realize themselves. With the rise of the MLF (Women’s Liberation Movement) she became an activist herself and took part in marches, signed petitions and manifestos, opened the monthly review les Temps modernes to the chronicle of day-to-day sexism, and became the president of quite a few associations or reviews.

HUMA: All the testimonies of women who read The Second Sex show what a shock the book gave them in that it exposed a situation of oppression. There are much fewer testimonies from the book’s male readers. Did Beauvoir write for women mostly?

SYLVIE CHAPERON: The success the book met with was partly due to the scandal that it raised when it came out and to the couple’s extraordinary fame and aura. The book also met the rising aspirations of thousands of women for whom women’s suffrage or equality under the constitution were not the whole issue. In the 1950s or 1960s, the older feminist groups continued to press for equal rights, but Beauvoir did not write a single line about those rights in her book. The new issues it raised concerned women’s private experience in the couple, the family, or sexuality. A lot of women said reading the book was a shock to them, a painful shock sometimes, but often salutary. Simone de Beauvoir brought to light women’s intimate experience: the shame of menstruation, the unwanted pregnancies, the endlessly repeated domestic work etc. But a lot of men also wrote to her, and on a wide variety of subjects. The collection of these letters now at the Bibliothèque nationale (the National Library) shows that her correspondents thought of her as a confidante.

HUMA: Simone de Beauvoir took up the Marxist notions of domination and alienation and used them liberally in her analyses. But she was reserved about the view that a deep change in the structure of class relations was the sufficient condition for the problem of women’s oppression to be solved.

SYLVIE CHAPERON: Until the 1970s she thought that the solution would come to them individually as they gained economic independence and collectively through the socialist revolution. In the autumn of 1968 she defined her position as follows: “The solution to women’s problem is impossible outside a global social solution, and the best thing women can do is to concern themselves with other issues than strictly their own. That’s what I have personally tried to do. What I mean is that I am concerned with political problems, like the war in Vietnam or the war in Algeria, and I put into this a lot more interest and conviction than into the feminist question proper as I do not think it can be solved in the present state of society.” She changed her mind when she joined in the MLF campaigns. From that time onwards she denied socialism the leading role in women’s emancipation, and promoted autonomous, women-only movements. Her conversion was probably due to the bold radicalism of this movement, something she had never known before, but also to its efficiency since it took multiple initiatives and quickly succeeded in turning public opinion around.

HUMA: How do you explain the communists’ extraordinary blindness at the time? Jean Kanapa for one thing condemned The Second Sex in the party’s monthly review la Nouvelle Critique for its “national nihilism” and its “exaltation of sexual depravity".

SYLVIE CHAPERON: I believe that the communists’ position at the time can be explained by structural causes and the effect of the historical environment. After the big about-turn in the 1930s which made the broad Popular Front alliance possible and changed the communist party into a governing party, the party adopted the great national values, which included family and pro-birth values, and shelved its avant-garde commitments, especially in relation to questions of morality. Then the climate of the Cold War further encouraged it in that direction. It is just as if the communist party, coming as it did under virulent attack, desperately tried to earn itself a good name by outdoing the others in its commitment to moral values and glorification of motherhood and the (working-class) family.

HUMA: The increasingly entrenched Stalinism of the party made internal criticism impossible. In 1956, during the campaign for the right to contraception, the party’s reaction was the same. However, Beauvoir’s conception of the promised sexual equality remains somewhat ambiguous. Is equality supposed to bridge the divide between the sexes or is it supposed to allow each sex to come into its own?

SYLVIE CHAPERON: The conclusion of the book is clear enough: equality will wipe away the differences between the sexes, and a good thing this will be too, Beauvoir explains, for then individual differences can develop fully in all their diversity. That much remains constant in Beauvoir’s existentialist brand of feminism: she rejects all notions of differentialism or essentialism. To her sexual difference is no given; but it is the product of a social and cultural situation. She remained adamant on that point, and to some extent the deep rift between the various feminist movements in France can be traced back to that heritage. Grounded as it was in her extensive cultural knowledge and the unifying principle of existentialism, The Second Sex drew upon every science that takes man as its object: from biology (reference to which remained a must in all essays on women until the 1960s) to anthropology (to which Margaret Mead and Claude Lévi-Strauss had just brought new insights) , through history, psychology, sexology, literature, philosophy – namely the 20th century’s major philosophies, whether Marxist, Freudian, or structuralist. Such a wide scope makes local inaccuracies inevitable, but it does posit relations between men and women as a specific, multi-dimensional social phenomenon for which no other theory accounts.

HUMA: How important is Simone de Beauvoir in the history of women’s emancipation? In what respects are postmodern feminist movements and contemporary “gender studies” indebted to her?

SYLVIE CHAPERON: The Second Sex paved the way for today’s rich crop of women studies: the original foundation for most of them can be traced back to Beauvoir’s book. It has opened up new territories where feminist critique can now break new ground, which were largely overlooked by the first wave of feminist militants in the early 20th century. Freud and his disciples, for instance, are put to the test. According to French psycho-analyst Elisabeth Roudinesco, Simone de Beauvoir was the first to question psycho-analytical theories in relation to the emancipation of women’s sexuality.(

(1) Lettres à Nelson Algren: un amour transatlantique, 1947-1964 (Gallimard, 1997 A Transalantic Love Affair : Letters to Nelson Algren)


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